Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Week 7: Use-or-lose lectern lessons

Choosing whether you'll use or lose the lectern is a major factor in adding presence to your presentation. In this week's coaching session for Stephanie Benoit, I want to give her enough to consider so she can choose the speaking style and setting that works best for her. Stephanie's just starting as a speaker, so here are some things to consider and know about lecterns, whether you use them or avoid them:

  • Lecterns are the slanted stands that prop up your speech and hold the microphone. Some people call this the podium, but a podium is really the platform beneath your feet.
  • Lecterns have advantages: They're a natural focal point for the audience. They can hide your notes, a glass of water, your technology controls, a laptop, a picture of your kid...and you, the speaker. They can give you something to hang on to.
  • Lecterns have disadvantages: They hide you, the speaker. If you hang on to them too tightly, you're immobilizing your hands, which will make you more likely to stumble verbally--and may tense you up. And they keep you boxed in, so you become a static image to the audience. To gesture, you have to make sure your hands are up high so they can be seen. And because no two lecterns are the same height, it seems, you may find they swallow you up if you're short, or keep your script perilously far from your eyes if you're tall. (Solution for the short speaker: Stand on a box. Solution for the tall speaker: Put a fat book under your speech to raise it up.)

Some speaking situations make it easy for you. Formal events--graduations, church services, funerals and award presentations--almost always demand a lectern, especially if you must frequently refer to notes with people's names (if you're presenting awards or degrees, for example). But in most other speaking situations, you get to choose.

To help Stephanie consider a range of styles, I've pulled some videos from our top women speakers series to illustrate three ways to use or lose lecterns effectively:

Use it...right: Michelle Obama, in this speech at last year's Democratic National Convention, manages to avoid all the disadvantages of using a lectern. Her gestures all can be seen over the top of the lectern, and you should practice to be sure you do the same. She rarely holds on to the lectern, choosing sometimes to gently rest her hands on it. To counteract that boxed-in look, she makes the effort to look at and turn toward different parts of the audience as she tells her story. Finally, she's telling a personal story she had already told in many campaign stops, so it's energetic and flows well.

Lose it but use it: Here's one of my favorite examples of using a lectern without letting it get in your way. This is a public lecture by chemistry professor Carolyn Bertozzi, who (after setting up her slides) quickly moves to one side of the lectern and leans on it, but doesn't hide behind it. It makes her seem much more approachable, and it suits her friendly speaking style--important if you are sharing a technical topic like chemistry with audience of non-technical people. (She has a great analogy using a peanut M&M...watch for it.) Notice the difference between Bertozzi and the man who introduces her. He uses the lectern to hold his notes for the introduction, and you see just his head and shoulders. You get a more complete picture of Bertozzi, and she can move freely during her talk:

Lose it, don't use it: For speakers used to a lectern, losing it entirely may seem scary--or freeing. More and more, this is the style of speaking I prefer, for a variety of reasons:

  • It lets me more directly connect with the audience--as a whole, and as individuals. I can walk right up to a group or a person to make eye contact. I'm more able to sense whether I'm losing the audience, and if that's the case, I can move into the crowd to change the situation and recapture its attention.
  • Moving around keeps me energized, and that energy translates to my speaking.
  • I can use a wider range of motion and gestures to punctuate my talk. My entire body becomes a source of motion and animates the words, as needed.
  • It lets me be more responsive in Q&A, when I can walk up to a questioner and respond directly.

Speaking without notes or something to prop them up does take practice. Here's another of our top women speakers, Jacqueline Novogratz of the Acumen Fund, who works completely without a lectern in her TED talk. (If you're going this route, be sure to work with the audio-visual technicians to be sure your microphone can move with you). Watch how she makes a personal story come alive without the need to hang on to a lectern:

Stephanie, this week, I'd like to hear what you think about using lecterns. And if you can get access to a room with a lectern, go ahead and try it out with a few remarks (perhaps practicing your message) then come out in front of it and say the same remarks. What are your questions about speaking while moving, or speaking at a lectern? What do you think about the different styles shown in the video? Which one do you think would work best for you?